Colombian Coffee History

With a yearly production that routinely tops 10 million bags of high-quality Arabica coffee, Colombia is the third largest coffee producer in the world. However, Colombia is the largest producer and exporter of Arabica coffee. Although the history of coffee goes back a millennium to the mountains of Ethiopia, it took a couple of centuries to spread into the Middle East and then across the world. That is when Colombian coffee history began in the 18th century.

Coffee Arrives in Arabia and Then Europe

It as in the 1400s when coffee was being grown, consumed, and traded on the Arabian Peninsula and the 1500s when it spread to the center of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul in what is now Turkey. It took another century before coffee got to Europe by way of Venice where the church disliked it until Pope Clement VIII tasted it and approved of its consumption by everyone.

Coffee Arrives in the New World

Although Dutch traders brought coffee to New Amsterdam (New York) in the 1600s, this was too far north to grow coffee and supplies initially came from Dutch plantations in the East Indies from islands such as Java. Coffee for planting arrived in the New World by a curious route.

The Mayor of Amsterdam gave Louis XIV of France a gift of a coffee plant in 1714. The king had it planted in Paris in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was a naval officer, Gabriel de Clieu, who obtained a seedling from this plant and in 1723 carried it on a perilous voyage to the island of Martinique in the windward group of islands in the Caribbean Sea.

The plant thrived in its new home is credited with producing eighteen million offspring over the next 50 years. These coffee plants were the first to spread throughout the Caribbean as well as Central and South America.

Coffee Is First Grown in Colombia

The first written record of coffee in Colombia comes from the writings of a Jesuit priest, José Gumilla, in his book The Orinoco Illustrated. Gumilla lived and traveled for 35 years in the region that now includes Colombia and Venezuela. His book written in the 1730s, describes customs, foods, and medicines in the area as well as his work at the Orinoco Mission where he was the Provincial Superior of New Granada. Gumilla noted that coffee was grown and consumed at the mission of Saint Teresa of Tabajé near the junction of the Meta and Orinoco Rivers. Fifty years later in 1787 the region’s Archbishop and Viceroy Caballero y Gorgora noted that coffee was being grown near Giron and Muzo which are today Santander and Boyaca to the North or present day Bogota.

Increased Coffee Production in the Northeast of Colombia

Commercial production of coffee was first recorded in 1808 when 100 bags of green coffee (60 kg each) were exported from Cucuta. Local legend attributes the increase in coffee production to a priest, Francisco Romero, who is said to have required his parishioners in the village of Salazar de Las Palmas to plant coffee as penance for their sins! No matter what the reason was, coffee production increased and spread from the departments of North Santander and Santander to Cundinamarca, Antioquia and the historic center of later coffee production in Viejo Caldas around Manizales.

The 14 Families Arrive at and Found Manizales

The department of Caldas was virtually empty of human in the early 19th century due to the massive deaths of the indigenous population due diseases caught during the European conquest. Despite there being colonial cities in Colombia like Cartagena and Santa Marta that date to the early years of the 1500s, the city of Manizales was only founded in 1849 after the “expedition of the 20” that came from the west in Antioquia around the present day towns of Niera and Salamina. To this day the fourteen founding families are part of the local culture including a grocery store chain named “La 14” and a large and modern mall named “Los Fundadores.”

Coffee in Colombia
Coffee in Colombia

Despite coming late to the business of growing coffee, the region around Manizales became the center of Colombian coffee production for the next century until it spread back across the rest of the “triangulo de café” demarcated by Manizales to the east, Medellin to the northwest and Cali to the southwest. Later spread resulted in major coffee production in the Department of Huila to the South of Manizales, Caldas.

What Is Pink Bourbon Coffee - Nevado del Huila
Nevado del Huila – Tallest Volcano in Colombia

Exportation of Coffee from Colombia

It was not until the later part of the 1800s that Colombia began to export larger quantities of coffee to the USA and Europe. Initially, most coffee production for export came from large landowners. However, periodic collapses of the coffee market made pure coffee production unsustainable for many. Thus, small coffee growers became the backbone of Colombian coffee growing.

Coffee Leaf Rust and the Pivot of Coffee Production to the Western Hemisphere

Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, was the largest coffee producer in the world until the appearance of coffee leaf rust, the fungus that destroys coffee crops. As coffee production suffered in Ceylon (which switched to growing tea) and elsewhere in Asia, the world had to look elsewhere for coffee. Thus Colombian coffee growers found more customers in markets across the world. The fungus made it to Africa by the beginning of the 20th century and to Brazil by 1970. Although the disease eventually got to Colombia, the Colombian Coffee Growers’ research arm, Cenicafé, began in the 1980s producing a Colombian leaf rust resistant coffee. The initial Colombian leaf rust resistant coffee came in two varieties, Colombian and Castillo. The first is a cross between an old Colombian variety, Caturra, and a rust-resistant strain from Southeast Asia, the Timor hybrid. Castillo is an offshoot of further cross breeding of the first Colombian leaf rust resistant coffee strain. Replanting with Colombian leaf rust resistant coffee in Colombia reduced the incidence of leaf rust from 40% to 5% a decade ago.

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